Saturday, August 29, 2009

after the floods

Just read a really cool piece by Charles Stross on the quality of mercy, coincidentally just after i was working on some revisions of this chapter. Enjoy.


The floods came and went.

And then they came back again. And again.

The water and the winds returned. But even the tardy, begrudging mercy the country showed New Orleans after the first flood did not. Mercy was already in short supply in those days.

It’s even rarer now.

Mercy does not age well. It must be consumed on the spot or it immediately begins to decay. Like when a stranger offers to buy you a shot: drink it down, lad, drink it down. The offer may not come back around. There are no rain checks on mercy.

Even just after Katrina, some found it a tricky tight-wire act, feeling compassion for the residents of New Orleans. Within days of the first flood, even while the bodies of grandmothers still floated in the brackish water, people began to mutter things like, ‘Well, it’s kind of their fault, for living in a bowl ten feet below sea level. Why should our tax dollars go toward reconstructing the city if it’s doomed anyway?’

Which was true, in a way.

But another truth: cruelly short-sighted sentiment like that was a poor disguise for an unspoken sense of moral superiority, a self-righteous schadenfreude. In parts of the country, certainly in the fish-belly white, Bible-thumping beer-gut of the nation, there was a tacit feeling that New Orleans had gotten what she deserved. The floods and the destruction and the misery and the deaths--these could be viewed as Old Testament-style retribution for her sinful ways. There was a secretive smacking of lips at the thought of all those hedonists getting flooded out of their debauched homes, their porn collections and drug stashes ruined. The nation’s diffident response to the catastrophe reflected that hidden acrimony.

But politicians can’t resist a disaster. They’re drawn to human misery like flies to shit.

Some say it’s difficult to tell which is which.

The politicians came ready with bluster and promises and teary-eyed sentimentalism, sleeves rolled up as if they might actually do some actual work.

Actually, they didn’t. In the days following the first calamity--which, granted, was not entirely man-made--after the cameras had recorded the sound bites, after poll-tested doses of garment-rending had been doled out for the masses, the politicians quickly dried their eyes.

Then they reapplied their make-up, and they rolled their sleeves back down, and fled in their air-conditioned limousines.

Some of them stopped for dinner in Baton Rouge before flying back to Washington. By and large, what they left behind in the restaurants’ toilets afterward would be their final contribution of any tangible kind to the residents of Louisiana.

Most of the politicians were gone before the water even began to recede.

The press stayed a little longer, but they too trickled away soon enough. Their blow-dryers and wardrobe racks were soon packed up and shipped to more arid climes.
After all, there was always some 16-year-old girl--preferably wealthy and white--who had gone missing, one with model good looks and a skeevy 24-year-old boyfriend. And when the media turned away from New Orleans, so did the fickle attention of America.

Among American cities, New Orleans had long been the outcast cousin. She was the slightly seedy one who smelled of trouble--and liquor--but who always got away without having anything serious pinned on her. She was the exotic one, the pariah of the American family who showed up every other Christmas. Or she might randomly call to see if she could crash on your couch--a call that invariably came in the middle of the night. When you were kids, New Orleans was the older cousin who secretly smoked out back at family reunions, the cousin who bought you booze when you were underage, and who always had rolling papers for some reason.

She had a great laugh and endless stories to tell, all of them bawdy and hilarious, and which got her uninvited to most formal events. You wouldn’t want her to meet your new bride’s parents.

So, we tolerated her, barely, back when she was a free-spirited party girl. But as soon as she was struck down by the hurricanes and the floods, as soon as she was helpless, all that changed.

America was not used to seeing her cry. That wasn’t the New Orleans we knew, and we turned our backs on her. She died just as gracefully, just as charmingly as she had lived, quietly succumbing to the water, the relentless water.

The water is patient. The water is a leisurely rapist that has all the time in the world.

She died alone. As much as she loved us, and as much as we loved her, we abandoned her when it came time for her to succumb.

We are all guilty.

But, hell. On the other hand, New Orleans has always been dying. Even from her earliest days when there was little more than a string of shacks where travelers could buy liquor and sex, connected by planks set across the mud, there was a sense of resignation embedded deep within her spirit, a Gallic shrug of the soul.
Of course the sea would come, she said, lifting the bottle to her lips then passing it on.

How could it not?

They rebuilt, eventually. But they didn’t bother much with the levees or the ancient, low-lying structures, the water-logged history rotting beneath.

Instead they built high. They ignored the squalid mess below and looked skyward.

They built New New Orleans.

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